There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Hemingford Grey and Green Knowe

Sunglasses were essential for the two hour drive to Hemingford Grey. The trip had not been planned knowing this would be the warmest day of the year (so far) but we were happy enough that it was. Recent political upheavals suggest England is not at ease with itself, but beneath a smiling sun and a clear blue sky it looked a green and comfortable country.

The M6 and A14 ran freely and we were a couple of miles beyond Huntingdon and almost there before encountering traffic problems. Our planned route (we learned later) would have shown us a straggling village much of it modern and ordinary, but after leaving the A14 a little early we approached via Hemingford Abbot and a couple of wrong turns and fell, as if by magic, into the old village centre.  It is one of those places cherished in our national imagination as a 'typical English village', though few of us live in such Gardens of Eden now - or indeed ever did. To paraphrase John Major paraphrasing George Orwell, this is the England of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.

Thatched house, Hemingford Grey
Apart from the thatched houses, large and small, there were renovated workers cottages….

Former workers' cottages, Hemingford Grey
… and houses where roses climbed the wall.

Roses up the wall, Hemingford Grey
Hemingford Grey is in Huntingdonshire, once a county in its own right but now merely a district of Cambridgeshire and the village pub is Cambridgeshire Dining Pub of the Year. Orwell’s ‘warm beer’ notwithstanding I am sure the beer is as well kept as in the Martin's Arms in Colston Bassett, the Nottinghamshire Dining Pub of the year we visited by happy accident last month. We did however, eschew The Cock today and met our daughter Siân at the Hemingford Garden Room, a Community Interest Company café, in the nearby parish rooms where we lunched in the garden beneath the shade of an umbrella.
The Cock, Hemingford Grey
Well-fed we strolled up the High Street which ends at the River Great Ouse. Across the river is St James’ church where the spire fell down during a hurricane in 1714. Despite the attempt to turn the stump into an architectural feature, it still looks like a stump.

St James', Hemingford Grey
We strolled down the riverside path until we reached a gate in the hedge.

Hemingford Grey is undoubtedly a pretty village, but not so uniquely pretty we would have driven over two hundred miles between us merely to see it; we were actually on a pilgrimage. Siân says she hardly remembers the BBC adaptation of the Children of Green Knowe - four thirty-minute episodes broadcast in 1986 when she was five - but that led to the purchase of the book, and then to the other five in the series, written by Lucy M Boston between 1954 and 1976. They were read and re-read many times in the following years.

The gate in the hedge took us into The Manor, the home of Lucy Boston from 1939 to her death in 1990, and the inspiration for Green Knowe.
Into the gardens, The Manor Hemingford Grey
The books feature a rather solitary twelve-year-old with the unlikely name of Toseland (actually the name of a village a few miles south of Hemingford Grey). While his parents are in Burma he spends his school holidays at Green Knowe with his wise and kindly great-grandmother Oldknow. During these visits Toseland (Tolly) meets the other children of the family who have inhabited Green Knowe over the centuries. They are, of course, ghosts, but not frightening spooks, merely young human beings displaced in time.

The writing, gently paced and literary, immerses the reader in this fantasy world and is demanding for young readers, certainly too demanding for a five or six-year-old, as Siân was. Lynne read the books to her and they both came to love the stories.

Siân had recently discovered that the house is open to the public by appointment. She phoned for an appointment and was very excited when her call was answered personally by Diana Boston, Lucy Boston's daughter-in-law. 
The beautifully tended garden also features in the stories. It contains the malevolent Green Noah, actually a decaying felled tree trunk,…. 
Green Noah, Hemingford Grey Manor
 … a stand of bamboo in which a gorilla is found in one story, and a walking St Christopher, though the statue is new, donated after the 2009 filming of From Time to Time  an adaptation of The Chimneys of Green Knowe. Despite having Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and Timothy Spall in the cast the film was not a success.
St Christopher, The Manor, Hemingford Grey

We wandered round the garden. Among the highlights were the largest thistle I have ever seen (No, that is a cardoon, Siân corrected me)….

Cardoon, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
 … and a fancy frilly red tree/shrub which I was pleased to find she could not identify.
Unidentified tree/shrub, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
We sat on a shaded bench with some of the other visitors. The afternoon temperature exceeded 33° - for American (and Daily Telegraph) readers, that is 92°F - which may not impress the people of Baghdad where a recent heatwave has seen temperatures over 50, but to a resident of north Staffordshire...

Diana Boston came out to say 'hello' but regretted that after recent medical treatment she could not conduct the tour herself. She left us in the capable hands of a friend and neighbour whose name I have shamefully forgotten.

The Manor is a Norman tower house built in the 1130s and one of the oldest continually inhabited houses in England. The extension on the left, described by the guide as a 'Tudor lean-to' softened its character though the Georgian makeover, which involved doubling the size of the frontage and making it rectangular, inserting new windows and changing the facing from stone to brick was probably a misjudgement. Perhaps fortunately, it soon burned down leaving the sturdy medieval stone building intact. The Manor is now its original shape, plus lean-to, though the Georgian windows and brick facing remain.

Originally the house was moated, the line of the moat can still be seen in the lawn, indeed I was standing in it while taking this picture.
The Manor, Hemingford Grey
Our party of ten filed into the house. One of the books’ medieval characters leaves a window open so birds can fly in and nest on a wooden carving, and there in the narrow lobby, was the very ornament surmounted by a birds nest.
Wooden ornament with birds' nest, The Manor, Hemingford Grey

 We sat in the medieval undercroft. The Manor, very much a family rather than a ‘stately’ home, is smaller than we had imagined Green Knowe to be, consisting of an undercroft and overcroft, both divided by Tudor partitions, and an attic above - a house did not need many storeys to be a ' tower' in Norman times.

Lucy Boston bought the house in 1939. She arrived fresh from her continental travels wearing Austrian dirndl and speaking fluent German and was understandably treated with some suspicion. The guide traced her thirty year journey from distrusted newcomer to village treasure; in her later years as she was losing her sight, village girls would stop on their way home from school to thread needles for her patchwork.

In summer the garden occupied her time, in winter she worked on patchwork seated by the fire in the chair Lynne occupies in the picture, or on her writing.

Lynne in Lucy Boston's fireside chair, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
As we had walked through the village Sian had mentioned a 'hair picture'. In one of the books a mystery cannot be solved until a picture is made using hair from all the participants. Hanging above the fireplace is the hair picture that inspired that idea, made by a French prisoner during the Napoleonic wars. In the early nineteenth century prisoners of war had to fund their own repatriation when hostilities ended and selling such crafts was one way of doing it.

The hair picture, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
Upstairs in the Tudor annex we were treated to a display of Lucy Boston's patchwork. Whilst admiring the work, this rather went over my head.

Lucy Boston's patchwork, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
I did, though, admire the Norman window into the main bedroom that would once have been on an external wall.

Norman window between the old house and the Tudor extension.
The bedroom in the overcroft was Lucy Boston's bedroom, but more excitingly, it was also recognisably great-grandma Oldknow's. With Georgian windows at one end, Norman windows on either side and a Tudor partition at the end, the room exemplified 500 years of architectural styles.
Norman window, Tudor partition, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
During World War Two Lucy Boston invited personnel from the nearby RAF bases to use her house for recreation and, in an age when recorded music was not the commonplace it has become, treated them to gramophone concerts. I am old enough to remember wind-up gramophones, but have never seen one as magnificent as this. It still works and the sound reproduction is surprisingly good. In 2012, while sitting in a garden in the northern highlands of Vietnam, Lynne noted the surprising variety of useful things she could see made from bamboo. Now she could add gramophone needles to her list.

Listening to Lucy Boston's magnificent gramophone

On the wall was a painting (possibly by Zoffany) of Elizabeth Gunning. Born here in 1733, the second of two sisters born in that year, her father was an impoverished Irish gentleman and her mother a daughter of an Irish aristocrat. The two girls were thrown into London society to make their way without titles or money, relying only on their good looks. At a Valentine’s Day party in 1752 the Duke of Hamilton expressed a desire to marry Elizabeth, then just 18, and the wedding took place that evening. The ensuing scandal provoked a closing of loopholes in the law concerning marriage licences and the calling of banns. The Duke died in 1758, but she became Duchess of Argyll by a second marriage and in 1776 King George III made her a baroness in her own right. My goodness, what a career – though perhaps ‘goodness’, as Mae West observed, had nothing to do with it. Her older sister, Maria, became Duchess of Coventry and a celebrated society hostess. She died of blood poisoning at the age of 27 from the overuse of lead based cosmetics.
Miss Gunning, possibly by John Zoffany
Peter Boston, who died 1999, was Lucy’s son and Diana’s husband. He was at university when his mother bought The Manor and an adult when she wrote the books but is nonetheless the inspiration for Tolly. A successful architect, he illustrated all his mother’s books.

We reached ‘Tolly's bedroom’ by a wooden spiral staircase. The toy box, rocking horse and bird cage - all important elements in the stories - looked exactly as they do in the illustrations. This caused great excitement,….

'Tolly's Room' in Green Knowe, The Manor, Hemingford Grey

 ....but for Siân the ultimate thrill was being able to hold the little carved wooden mouse that is so important to Tolly.
Siân becomes overly excited by a carved mouse, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
....and I did not mean to capture Lynne and myself in the mirror, but as I did...
The guide asked Siân at what age she had come to know the books. 'Six,' she answered with confidence. I was a little surprised, but not as much as the guide. 'They are very demanding books for a six-year-old,' she said.
Descending the stairs we paused while Lynne held our copy of The Children of Green Knowe beside Peter Boston’s original artwork. The book, like all we took to Sudan, is now a loose-leafed folder as the desert sun dried out the glue. That was in 1987, proving Siân right about enjoying the books as a six-year-old.
Lynne, the Children of Green Knowe and the original cover artwork
We paused in the shop to buy a carved mouse and a DVD of the BBC adaptation.

It can be a mistake to revisit childhood joys, they may not stand up to adult scrutiny, but for Siân (and indeed, Lynne) The Manor was Green Knowe, with all the magic intact. It did not have the same impact for me, the story of a lonely and rather strange twelve-year-old and his great-grandmother held less appeal, but I appreciate the quality of the story telling and slow, gentle way the reader is first beguiled and then sucked inside a unique fantasy world. And The Manor itself? The house is a delight, with or without the Green Knowe connection.

1 comment:

  1. Coincidences: I recently went to Croome Park in Worcestershire, Maria Gunning's home at one time. There was a modern art installation of her with half her face eaten away by the lead in her make up. I do recommend the Grayson Perry tapestries though, which are there til September. The same day we went to visit a friend, and she has one of those frilly fancy red shrubs in her garden, which I know as a smoke bush.